In Tampa, a rape victim waits to face her attacker in court. The stress of the ordeal before her is magnified by the seemingly unending delays granted because the justice system ground to a halt this spring due to the pandemic.
In Tallahassee, a family waits, while a woman accused of their son’s brutal murder has sat in jail since Oct. 2019, awaiting a new trial, hopefully in 2021.
For all these victims and loved ones, the wait is excruciating and just another unintended consequence of the pandemic shut down.
Additionally, this delayed justice in Florida has caused the inmate population to be almost 20 percent less this month than during its high in 2015.
According to the News Service of Florida, in an attempt to reduce the spread of Covid-19, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady issued emergency procedures in March that included suspending jury trials and what are known as “speedy trial” procedures in criminal cases. Limited jury trials have since resumed in parts of the state.
As a result of these suspensions, a massive backlog in cases was created and prison admissions declined precipitously.
According to the executive summary of a report released Monday by the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference (CJEC), “As a result of the continuing pandemic, the courts have developed a backlog of pending felony cases (30,999) that is expected to take several years to work its way through to the prison population. At this time, they do not expect to return to full operating capacity until FY 2021-22, with their backlog expected to take until the end of FY 2023-24 to resolve itself.”
According to the CJEC report, the prison system had 82,027 inmates at the end of October. That number is expected to decline to 80,792 at the end of November. The number of inmates is forecast to bounce back, a little, to 82,116 in June 2021, the end of the state’s fiscal year.
Florida’s prison system had over 100,000 inmates in June 2015. As recently as June 2019, there were 95,626 inmates locked away, according to the News Service of Florida. One year later, the prison population has declined 8.25 percent to just 87,736 inmates and is still collapsing.
As thousands of new cases are added daily to the Florida justice system, Canady, on Tuesday, issued two new and two revised orders about court system operations during the pandemic. According to the News Service of Florida, the orders take a phased approach to reopening courts, with a focus on holding remote proceedings when possible.